Organisations in Europe reported the lowest amount of harassment in the workplace but are the slowest to close cases across the world, says the new NAVEX Global 2020 Regional Whistleblowing Hotline Benchmark Report.
The study, which is based on 1.4 million global reports of whistleblowing, found European organisations’ median number of reports to be 0.5 per 100 employees – well below the 1.5 per 100 employees seen for North American organisations.
But while European businesses may experience the lowest incidents of whistleblowers reporting workplace harassment, they are the slowest at reaching a satisfactory outcome for those who are already fearful of retaliation – which has been compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Good for business
Businesses should embrace whistleblowing as an early warning system for potential issues, says Katharine James, CSMP, a Senior Leader and the Head of Governance at the BBC: “Whistleblowers are not bad for business. In fact, quite the opposite. At the BBC we actively encourage people to report issues, as we want to know about them so we can fix the problem.
“We appreciate our employees are our eyes and ears on the ground, and we need them to feel comfortable reporting. Then it’s our duty to investigate it thoroughly.”
With the second lockdown in full effect in the UK and the continued disruption to the global workplace from the pandemic, organisations can expect these reporting challenges to intensify, says Ed Mills, Head of the Employment Department at Travers Smith LLP. He adds: “As a general rule, COVID-19 has seen case closure timeframes increase. This is down to a wide variety of reasons, from health-related absences to remote working limitations.
“In highly sensitive investigations – such as sexual misconduct – the investigator may wish to interview the complainant and alleged perpetrator in person. If any of the individuals involved in this process become ill or have to self-isolate, the meeting will have to be delayed.”
He continues: “Gathering evidence can take longer, as accessing hard copy data is more challenging while people are based remotely.
“Businesses have found themselves busier than ever thanks to the new, time-consuming challenges the pandemic has created, which can pose resourcing challenges. All of which increases the length of time it takes to conduct and close an investigation.”
Whistleblowing on the rise
European organisations continue to have significantly higher rates of whistleblowing (11%) than North American organisations (4%), and while in-person harassment may decline due to remote working, there could still be a spike in reports in the coming months based on people’s behaviours while working remotely.
Katherine James explains: “The lockdown period will have given some employees the ability to physically distance themselves from the person or people they are reporting. Remote working also gives others time to think and potentially realise that a situation they previously found themselves in was not appropriate.
“On the flip side, employees may be experiencing higher concern levels around retaliation due to the economic climate during the pandemic. This could dissuade them from whistleblowing as they may believe their name could end up on ‘the list’ when future cuts are considered.”
Fear of retaliation has always been a huge concern when it comes to whistleblowing. Alleviating this fear must be prioritised when businesses are preparing their risk and compliance plans for 2021, especially because reports of retaliation are rising and the introduction of an EU Directive on whistleblower protection will take effect next year.
While the percentage of retaliation reports for European organisations accounted for only 1.1% of all incidents in the latest benchmarking report, this is up from 0.9% in 2018. Substantiation rates for these reports in Europe were cited at 42%, compared to 24% in North America.
This metric is often used by organisations as a measure of the effectiveness of their whistleblowing programme. It can reveal how well employees understand the nature and purpose of the programme, providing invaluable insights into how effective the organisation’s code of conduct and investigation processes are.
Communication is key
Communication is the key when it comes to an effective ‘speak up’ system. European organisations had the lowest level of anonymous reporting rates globally in 2019, at 52%, a clear indication that people in Europe are more trusting in going direct to line managers to raise complaints.
However, with reporting now impacted by remote working, businesses must think of other ways to encourage people to feel safe when coming forward. Implementing solutions that provide a clear route for whistleblowing, and protect businesses from a risk and compliance perspective will be key in 2021 – especially as reporting levels significantly increase when employees are given access to a wider range of reporting channels.
Giles Newman, Managing Director, International at NAVEX Global says: “Organisations need to develop a high level of trust in their speak-up programmes, so people feel safe and secure to come to them when things aren’t right, but it doesn’t stop with the disclosure.
“Training and awareness on whistleblowing processes and anti-retaliation policies should be regularly communicated to all employees, especially those working remotely. All management should be given clear expectations on how to identify retaliation and prevent it from occurring. If organisations recognise that whistleblowing is a critical tool to identify issues, they can protect themselves by tackling those issues before they escalate.”